February 7, 2023

The West Was Post-Christian: Until It Wasn’t.

I jumped into a taxi last week to get to the airport. It was super early, still dark and no chance of a lift from any member of the family (it was 4:30am after all).

It’s just a twelve to fifteen minute drive to the airport from my house. It’s nice and handy for the job that I do for City to City Australia, which requires a lot of travel. If you live in Perth, which I do, then every interstate trip is at least three to four hours flight and a two to three hour time difference.

I was tired already. But the taxi driver, a young man from Pakistan, was having none of it. He wanted to talk, and within one minute he had found out what I do for a job, and the fact that I’d worked for Christian churches for some three decades. And what did he want to talk about – no – WHO did he want to talk about? He wanted to talk about Jesus!

I was his last ride for the day as he was heading to the mosque for prayers at five am. But for the next ten minutes he picked my brains, asked me questions, made observations, wondered about stuff he’d heard. And he said he wanted the taxi ride to be longer so he could talk. I thought that sounded sweet, but the fact I had a flight to catch, and the cost was already upwards of fifty dollars at that time of the morning.

But here’s a list of some of the stuff we covered:

  1. Who do we think Jesus was?
  2. What does it mean for Christians to believe in the Trinity?
  3. Why are so few Australians actually religious?
  4. What’s the difference between Catholics and Protestants?
  5. Why don’t Jews accept Jesus as Messiah?
  6. What is going to happen at “the end”?

Then with a shake of hands, a “thanks for the ride and the chat”, and me wishing him well at mosque, it was over. I wish the trip had been longer, I woulda paid whatever it cost to keep that one going! And I gotta say, I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever had a taxi or an Uber ride in which the Muslim or Sikh driver has not wanted to have a conversation about faith and Jesus, and, interestingly, why no one in Australia wants to talk about religion.

And conversely, I’ve never had a conversation in a taxi or Uber in which the Western driver does anything but shut that conversation down if it’s as much as hinted at. I’m longing for the day that that situation changes. But it feels like, in the flesh at least, that it will never happen. The caveat being “in the flesh” of course. For that says nought about the Spirit.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Redeemer Church founder, Tim Keller, who’s also the global founder of the organisation I work for, makes the observation that on the surface it’s clearly the case in the West that the gospel tide is well out. It’s encouraging that The Atlantic, progressive and liberal as it is, is happy to publish Keller. I believe we live in a “negative” not merely “neutral” age in the West, in which the gospel message is seen as part of the problem, and no longer part of the solution, but Tim Keller at least still has cut-through.

Yet while the tide is out, the gist of Keller’s article is “don’t be so sure that that is the way it will always be.” Some of Keller’s observations will come as no surprise, and certainly no surprise to me after my constant conversations with immigrant taxi drivers. The secular confidence in the West that religion will continue to slough off does not seem to account for mass migration or the fact that secular families have far fewer children than religious ones.

Secularists have tended to see the religious narrative in history in terms of a cable car ride. We are heading upwards on a fairly predictable trajectory away from religion and dogma and as the cable car reaches new heights of rationality and scientific certainty, then religion will look smaller and smaller, and become less significant in our lives.

The problem with that, of course, is that religious history is not like a cable car. It is like a rollercoaster. The secular narrative is only believable if you inhabit the echo chamber of the hyper-rationalist who is invariably a white, middle class male who is ageing rather quicker than he thought he would.

Keller makes this point:

There was no such thing as monasticism—through which pagan Northern Europe was turned Christian—until there was. There was no Reformation until there was. There was no revival that turned Methodists and Baptists into culturally dominant forces in the midwestern and southeastern United States—until there was. There was no East African Revival, led primarily by African people, that helped turn Africa from a 9 percent Christian continent in 1900 into a 50 percent Christian continent today—until there was. Christianity, like its founder, does not go from strength to strength but from death to resurrection.

Until there was. It’s the positive affirmation of this blog post title. Historians may indeed observe like Keller does that the decline in religious observance, and the compelling rise of the “nones” has religion, and Christianity in particular, on the ropes, waiting for the knock out blow.

But despite what progressives might say, getting on the right side of history won’t mean jettisoning orthodox Christianity. If anything, it’s the only version of the faith that is thriving, despite what the New York Times editorial board might wish.

Keller, in his observation that this thing ain’t over, is simply leaning into what the Bible teaches us throughout. There was no valorous judge in Israel in the times before the kings, until there was. The was no voice from the Lord in the time of Eli the priest until there was. There was no king after God’s own heart in Jerusalem until there was. There was no return from exile for the Jews until there was.

Launder, rinse, repeat. It’s clear that the “until there was” of Keller’s observation, is assumed in Scripture, and as his words imply, there was no resurrection of the dead until there was. In fact God delights in confounding the supposed, settled reality of things with such “until there was’s”. Christians should almost assume this “until there was” given the trajectory of the Bible. Or at least they should assume it if they don’t roll over and give into the “immanent frame” narrative that is so popular in modernity. That is no call for quietism either, the myriad “until there was” scenarios invariably involve God’s gracious acts through his people.

Or at least was so popular in modernity. The cable car assumption was that “enchantment” would whither with each passing decade in the West. And not only in the West, but like all of our other global exports, (smallpox anyone?), the viral nature of disenchantment would simply spread out from us with the same missionary zeal that once took the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Yet it hasn’t. Frustratingly so for many. The Rest looks at the West and turns up its nose at our feeble belief systems, our generalised anxieties over our unstable identities, our fractious community life, and our restless ennui that seems insatiable, even given the shopping list of white goods and holidays they can merely dream of. Meanwhile, the belief that there is more to life than we can see, and that somehow this universe has a spiritual component that “leaks” into our visible world – is ticking along quite nicely in the West, even if it is attached to aberrant and often abhorrent practices and ideas.

Writing in the aforementioned New York Times, Ross Douthat, in a piece provocatively entitled Be Open To Spiritual Experience. Also Be Really Careful”, makes the striking observation that the decline in Roman Catholic adherence is coinciding with a rise in the request for exorcisms by priests, at the behest of supposedly modern Americans. Confidence to explore the spiritual realm again, among moderns who are bored and listless enough with material pleasure to want something more, is not being matched with care.

Douthat says that without the safety net of Christianity’s sober and orthodox assessment of the unseen realm, many Americans – and Westerners – are arrogantly, tapping into spiritual forces and modes of re-enchanting their modern lives. All well and good, except they are messing with strange fire in the process, and they are cheerfully ill-equipped to do so. Strang fire exists that modernity cannot resolve, report, measure, or peer review. It’s a bit like the Nazis opening the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It may be beautiful, but you’re just as likely to get a face melt along the way.

Douthat, in line with the work of Tara Isabella Burton, says that we’re dabbling as in-control consumers, confident that our hypermodern technological worldview will buffer us from “the magic” of it all. But, he issues a warning:

… precisely because an attitude of spiritual experimentation is reasonable, it’s also important to emphasize something taught by almost every horror movie but nonetheless skated over in a lot of American spirituality: the importance of being really careful in your openness and not just taking the beneficence of the metaphysical realm for granted.

In other words, you might end up running naked and wounded from a demonic situation, with the snarling voice asking who the heck are you. The self-assurance of the West might just take a beating before it comes to the conclusion that it has bitten off more than it can chew.

Now none of this is to say that the West will become Christian again. But then again there has to come a point when the confident rationalists admit that the science on religion is not settled, never was, and that history demonstrates the foolishness of writing off Christianity. In any case, it’s not as if the removal of Christianity has left us with robust, self-assured humanity, the Uber-menchen of Nietzsche’s prediction, sans all the scary bits.

No. What we have increasingly, are mere shells of humans, insecure, listless, bored, always hopeful that the next thing will scratch the itch of a skin that is either letting them down, or seems to be at odds with the identity they long for. Our greatest hope seems to be a disembodied AI existent, at the very time we are so obsessed with our bodies. The two cannot be reconciled. Keller puts it this way:

The modern self is exceptionally fragile. While having the freedom to define and validate oneself is superficially liberating, it is also exhausting: You and you alone must create and sustain your identity. This has contributed to unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety and never-satisfied longings for affirmation.

In other words, there were no concerns about what it might mean to launch out into a godless deep in our own strength. Until there were.

Which all means, there’s no reason to doubt that a time may come when I jump into a taxi for the early morning airport run and I get to have that same staccato God-conversation with a thirty year old Westerner. A Westerner, whose anaemic Arts degree; coupled with a listless job market; rising house prices; a trail of Tinder dates; and a verbal commitment to a bunch of progressive shibboleths he never truly believed, has led him to ask the question “Is this all there is?”

Someone who would never become a follower of King Jesus, until he does.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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